With Assad's fate secure, Russia sets its sights on Isis fighters in Syria
The head of the Russian army in Syria has said the defeat of Islamic State in the country is imminent during a visit to a strategically located town recently recaptured from Isis by forces loyal to Bashar alAssad.
“All the conditions are in place for the final stage of defeating Isis in Syria,” said Lt Gen Alexander Lapin, standing amid heavy security outside the building of a former Isis sharia court, adorned with the extremist group’s black-and-white logo. “I can promise you that no Isis terrorist will ever set foot in this town again.”
Okeirbat was regained by forces loyal to the Syrian government on 2 September after a threemonth assault amid intensive Russian airstrikes. Recapturing the town enabled government-backed forces to push forward towards breaking the long-standing siege on Deir ezZor, in the east of the country.
Russia entered the conflict on the side of Assad’s government in September 2015 at a time when the regime looked close to falling. Although Moscow’s stated goal has always been to defeat Isis, during the first year of engagement the majority of Russian airstrikes targeted other opposition groups, including those supported by western countries.
Russia’s long-standing policy in the Middle East has been that retaining the status quo, however unpleasant the regime may be, is always better than revolution, and the Russian intervention appeared designed to shore up the Assad regime at any cost.
With Assad now looking more secure, Russia has indeed begun battling Isis. On Thursday, Moscow launched seven cruise missiles at Isis targets south-east of Deir ez-Zor, and said the militants would soon be pushed to the other side of the Euphrates river.
The Russians took a group of journalists to Okeirbat as the final leg of a four-day tour for press designed to showcase Moscow’s contribution to the war and the subsequent peacekeeping operation. The trip has shown just how involved Russia is on the ground in Syria, with the country’s military police involved in securing a number of “de-escalation zones” where ceasefires between government forces and moderate opposition groups are in place.
On Friday, journalists were flown from the main Russian airbase near Latakia on the Mediterranean coast to an airfield east of Aleppo, and then taken in a convoy of armoured trucks on a five-hour journey along desolate roads to Okeirbat, past the war-destroyed shells of abandoned villages.
The convoy was accompanied by black-clad men from Assad’s feared secret police, the Mukhabarat, and pickup trucks mounted with rifles. On arrival, the town was patrolled by what appeared to be Russian special forces soldiers armed with high-end equipment but no insignia.
The complicated tangle of forces operating on the ground was evident at a dusty forward operating base outside Okeirbat, where the convoy stopped briefly, which appeared to be manned at least partly by irregular Russians who did not want to speak to the media. The Russians have portrayed the latest advance as entirely run by Syrian army units operating with Russian air cover, but in reality most of the fighting in Syria over the past few years has been led by Iranian-backed militias, with the Syrian army in disarray.
Fighting in the area was still ongoing, with an incoming mortar shell landing close to the Russian convoy as it drove towards Okeirbat. In the town itself, dull thuds of artillery could be heard at regular intervals. Isis positions were about 10 miles away from the town, according to the Russians.
There was an extensive tunnel network underneath the town that the Isis militants had dug over the past two years, making the capture of Okeirbat especially difficult. The town was also home to an Isis tank workshop. Lapin said the Russians had located the factory by using drones to follow tank tracks, and had carried out airstrikes on the target on 29 August.
The tank workshop had three different sections: one for the repair of captured tanks, one to reinforce them with makeshift armour and one to turn tanks into powerful suicide vehicles. There were still the remains of a number of tanks in the workshop, including one with the turret removed. The workshop removed the turrets of about onethird of the tanks it captured from the Syrian army with explosives, and would then use them on suicide missions, said Lapin. When fitted this way, the tanks had a kill radius of 300 metres.
Lapin said that during the recent Syrian and Russian operation against Isis, 1,209 fighters had been killed and 49 tanks and 159 pickup trucks mounted with rifles had been destroyed. The Russians have typically either avoided talking about civilian casualties or claimed there have been none, despite monitoring groups frequently reporting casualties, particularly from airstrikes.
Okeirbat had a population of 10,000 prior to the outbreak of Syria’s civil war, which had fallen to 2,500 under Isis, said Lapin. The Russians claimed that all the civilians had fled before the final assault on the town, but it was unclear how this had happened, or whether there were in fact civilian casualties during the assault. Observer groups have reported numerous civilian casualties during the current wave of fighting.
Lapin said Isis and other Islamic extremist groups now control about 15% of Syria, with Isis in retreat and heading for a final showdown in the Euphrates valley. A separate offensive by opposition fighters backed by the US-led coalition is continuing in the eastern Deir ez-Zor province.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that the Assad government currently controls 48% of Syrian territory, indicating that even after the final defeat of Isis, the country’s long and devastating conflict will be far from over.
A Russian soldier stands in front of a destroyed tank factory operated by Isis militants. Photograph: Nataliya Vasilyeva/AP
A Syrian government soldier stands guard outside what was a shariah court run by Isis in Okeirbat. Photograph: Nataliya Vasilyeva/AP